The Book of Wonder is a 1912 short story collection by Lord Dunsany, a writer and playwright now most famous for his fantasy stories, predominantly in the form of short stories and with an atmosphere and style so different to what is now considered fantasy fiction as to put it almost in another genre.
The Book of Wonder contains 14 short tales, each one strong in elements of the fantastic, the mythic, the romantic and often too the tragic. Dunsany was a major influence on fantasy and`”weird fiction” in the first half of the twentieth century (particularly on HP Lovecraft, a writer ironically at his best when furthest from the style of the man who most inspired him), and later on artists as disparate as Guillermo del Toro and Jorge Luis Borges. Today, my impression is that Dunsany is a writer more referenced than read, which having myself now read him I think is rather a loss.
Fantasy fiction is I think today probably the most moribund genre in literature, a genre in fact which is if anything peculiarly devoid of the fantastic, marked with multi-volume epics spanning hundreds of pages in which meticulously detailed worlds are explored in tedious depth by characters most notable for their morality and outlook being remarkably similar to that of contemporary Americans. A few current writers have tried to reinvigorate the form, some with a degree of success (China Mieville), some heroically but I think unsuccessfully (George RR Martin, who in trying to reinvent the genre has I think instead become lost within it) and some with results I can’t yet speak to as I’ve not read the relevant work (Richard Morgan, though I have high hopes). Generally, however, contemporary fantasy is an immensely commercial genre in which highly formulaic works are produced for a fanbase most notable for its apparently unquenchable appetite for repeatedly being served the same highly conservative fare.
It was not always so. Dunsany comes from an age in which the fantasy work had, in my view, as much right to be taken seriously as any other genre, and an age in which fantasy works of genuine talent and value were being written. That age ended, in my view, around the 1960s/1970s for reasons beyond the scope of this blog entry, though it does strike me there is some irony in discussing Dunsany and in doing so hearkening back to some lost golden age the like of which has passed from the world.
For Dunsany, the essence of fantasy is romance and wonder. The first story of this collection, the Bride of the Man-Horse, draws on classical myth to tell the tale of a centaur by the name of Shepperalk who ventures into the world for reasons that are unclear but seem intrinsic to his nature. He rides through a range of places the names of which follow no geography or known history but which rather are chosen to evoke mystery and a sense of the unknown. He is in a sense a spirit of freedom and romance, travelling amongst the mundane:
Bells pealed in frantic towers, wise men consulted parchments, astrologers sought of the portent from the stars, the aged made subtle prophecies. “Is he not swift?” said the young. “How glad he is,” said the children.
While travelling through the world of men, he encounters a being of immense beauty and unusual parentage:
The lions came not to woo her because they feared her strength, and the gods dared not love her because they knew she must die.
He sees her and takes her for his own, or to be hers:
He galloped with half-shut eyes up the temple-steps, and, only seeing dimly through his lashes, seized Sombelenë by the hair, undazzled as yet by her beauty, and so haled her away; and, leaping with her over
the floorless chasm where the waters of the lake fall unremembered away into a hole in the world, took her we know not where, to be her slave for all centuries that are allowed to his race.
Three blasts he gave as he went upon that silver horn that is the world-old treasure of the centaurs. These were his wedding bells.
And there, in what is far from the strongest tale in this collection, we have many (though not all, of which more shortly) of the classic Dunsanian elements. There is barely a plot here, a centaur goes for a ride, meets a sort-of-woman and goes off with her. There is little by way of logical worldbuilding, there is a hole in the world which is there because the image evokes wonder, not because we know where it goes or Dunsany has given any thought to such a matter. The point of the tale is, quite simply, wonder. The centaur goes out, magic rides among us, the marvellous and the strange exist and we can but gaze at them as they pass and say to ourselves how glad they are.
As noted above, The Bride of the Man-Horse lacks one of Dunsany’s key characteristics as a writer which most endears him to me. That trait is a sly wit, a darkly comic bent which often infuses his tales and which delights in peculiar dooms and (perhaps) undeserved fates. In Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men the famed thief Slith and his two criminal companions set out to steal a golden box said to contain the most wonderful poems ever contemplated by man. The story opens as follows:
When the nomads came to El Lola they had no more songs, and the question of stealing the golden box arose in all its magnitude. On the one hand, many had sought the golden box, the receptacle (as the Aethiopians know) of poems of fabulous value; and their doom is still the common talk of Arabia. On the other hand, it was lonely to sit around the camp-fire by night with no new songs.
The tale takes us through the journey of the three thieves, the strange hazards they avoid and then to their ultimate plan for recovering the golden box and the poems it contains:
This was their simple plan: to slip into the corridor in the upper cliff; to run softly down it (of course with naked feet) under the warning to travellers that is graven upon stone, which interpreters take to be “It Is Better Not”; not to touch the berries that are there for a purpose, on the right side going down; and so to come to the guardian on his pedestal who had slept for a thousand years and should be sleeping still; and go in through the open window. One man was to wait outside by the crack in the World until the others came out with the golden box, and, should they cry for help, he was to threaten at once to unfasten the iron clamp that kept the crack together. When the box was secured they were to travel all night and all the following day, until the cloud-banks that wrapped the slopes of Mluna were well between them and the Owner of the Box.
Here again we have the essence of much of Dunsany’s style, implied detail (“the berries that are there for a purpose”) and evocation without elaboration – critical elements of description left vague and unspecified in nature (what form does the guardian take after all?). In short, much is left for the reader to imagine, and that I believe is the point. Dunsany’s tales are intended to engage the reader’s own imagination and to inspire the reader to flights of fancy. Unlike current fantasy writers, Dunsany does not detail his world, elements recur (Slith is referenced in other tales) but no real attempt is made at consistency. His language is chosen for tone and flavour, not for logic. Why, after all, would the fantastic be logical? If it is logical, sensible, ordered, is it fantastic at all?
It is no spoiler to say that Slith and his companions meet unusual dooms, in Slith’s case so peculiar that his is mentioned again in later tales. This is not a story of a heroic band fighting evil as would be found in sub-Tolkien fantasy, rather it is a fairy tale of a band of thieves, the treasure they sought to steal, the things they met and the fate they encountered. It is morally ambiguous, did Slith and his companions deserve their fates? Not especially. Is it just that the finest poems of mankind are locked away where none can read them? Clearly not. Dunsany’s is not a world of morality, it is not a world in which right triumphs, rather it is a world of romance and of the extraordinary, which may be dire as well as marvellous. Which is, in fact, marvellous in the oldest sense, in that we marvel at it even though we may not perhaps entirely approve of that at which we marvel.
In a number of places Dunsany makes comment on our own world, individuals cross from it into his worlds of romance, and clearly he sees ours as a rather forbidding and censorious place. Dunsany argues that dreams have merit, that imagination is not idle, that fancies should not be crushed forever in favour of the pragmatic. It is a view I sympathise with, life is more than mere utility, art has its own value and is its own justification.
Dunsany’s work is to a modern reader quite strange, this is ultimately a book of fairy stories aimed at adult readers, it is though also a work of superbly written fantasy which betrays a knowledge of classicism and myth which is worn lightly, deployed with humour but which does I think create a genuine sense of the fantastic. Dunsany is a writer of the impossible, fantasy in the sense of that which cannot be but which perhaps is in some ways brighter than that which can. He is a dreamer, and an advocate for the value of dreams. Immediately after this post, I intend to separately post two tales by Dunsany both of which are now out of copyright and which together give better than I can a sense of his wonderful mix of the romantic, the sinister and the very funny. Having now discovered him, I intend to read more by him, and it is obvious to me why he was so important to writers such as HP Lovecraft and Jack Vance, among many others.
I link here to a fascinating article in the New York Times which I found while writing this piece, which discusses in greater depth Lord Dunsany’s life and works. The Project Gutenberg edition of the Book of Wonder can be found here.